the strange (semi-illegal) world of eye colour changing surgery

Permanent iris implants may still not be 100% medically safe, but that isn’t stopping people from flying to Mexico, Central America, and Africa and coming back with turquoise and sapphire-blue eyes.

by Monica Jaramillo Duarte
05 January 2016, 9:45am

Marilyn Manson is the posterboy for unnatural eye color. His single white contact lens is as iconic as it is demonic. And while it's hard to imagine what could be more extreme, the field of cosmetic surgery has now outdone him. See: the new trend for surgically, permanently changing your eye colour. No contacts required. Just $8,000 and a plane ticket to Mexico.

Here's how the procedure works: an incision is made on the surface of the eyeball (don't watch this video if you're squeamish), a folded implant is inserted and unfolded to cover the iris, the slit is stitched up and your eyes are now "Ice Grey," "Baby Blue, "Amber" or whichever option you chose from the menu.

While the surgery isn't approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a growing number of people are both choosing to pay for the procedure and the costs of traveling to a country where it's legal. They're flying to countries including Mexico, Panama and India and returning with eyes in sci-fi shades.

Last year, R&B singer Tiny Harris (wife of rapper T.I.) traveled to Tunisia and changed her eye colour from brown to "Ice Grey" via an iris implant. "That's the colour I purchased," she told ABC News, and when asked how she feels about her new eyes, she added, "They're amazing, I love them." Her daughter, Zonnique, recently also went "Ice Grey."

But things haven't been so positive for everyone who's undergone the surgery. A patient who wishes to remain anonymous admits in a YouTube video that she changed her eye colour last year and already regrets her decision. She says, "I just wanted something subtle and natural. My pupils do not dilate any more and I feel like I'm a vampire. All the little kids are scared of me."

And then there are the many stories of people who have decided to remove their implants after experiencing complications. One person I spoke with, who traveled to Panama for the procedure, says that he is suffering from cataracts, red eyes, blurry vision, and secondary glaucoma. Just having the implants in your eyes causes them to swell, he explains. "You have to use anti-inflammatory drops for the rest of your life," he says, adding, "Please don't be that stupid. Your health is so much more important."

Of course, the medical centres that offer the procedure disagree. Sibi Joice, a representative of Dr. Shibu Varkey, a cosmetic eye surgeon in India, told me over email, "We have been doing this procedure successfully and with the utmost patient satisfaction for more than five years."

Of the handful of international websites that advertise permanent eye colour change, one of the best-known belongs to BrightOcular, a company with a Los Angeles area code that produces "intraocular implants." A warning on the site reads, "This method is not recommended for merely cosmetic purposes. Nevertheless, hundreds of patients around the world have successfully permanently change their iris colour for cosmetic reasons only." The site lists the medical applications of the surgery as treating people with heterochromia (irises of two different colours) and ocular albinism.

Unsurprisingly, though, the customer testimonials tend to focus on the aesthetic results. Chizu, a young Japanese woman, writes, "This has been the most fulfilling procedure I ever had and probably the last I will ever need. I have been wearing colour contacts since my early teens which are very popular in Asia. Now people can look into my light baby blues that are really mine!" Brian, a freelance model with newly green eyes, says, "Since I have gotten the procedure I have booked many more jobs and I just feel more confident taking photos." And semi-famous musician Toryn Green (he used to front the hard-rock group Fuel) notes that he is "loving the new 'Ice Grey' eyes" he received in South India. "You are in great hands with BRIGHTOCULAR!," he assures us.

However, the risks are very real, says Dr. Tracy Pfeifer, a certified cosmetic surgeon in New York. She warned me, "People tend to think of procedures such as this as being so simple, like putting on a different colour mascara. But there could be serious medical consequences. With coloured contact lenses available for a quick, temporary eye colour change, why take any risk at all from this procedure?" But, as she says, contact lenses are temporary and for some people, that's not enough.

Will changing your eye colour ever become as common as other body modifications like, say, getting a tattoo? Probably not, especially as its not even legal in the US at the moment. In the meantime, a cosmetic surgery practice in Laguna Beach called Stroma Medical has been developing a new walk-in procedure for obtaining blue eyes that it claims takes less than 30 seconds and requires only a local anaesthetic. (It uses a laser to burn away the melanin in brown irises.) But, like the implant surgery, for now it remains illegal in the U.S., and there's still little to no data about the complications it may cause. As Dr. Pfeifer, says, "I think any risk, no matter how small, is not worth it."


Text Monica Jaramillo Duarte
Photography Paulo Philippidis via Flickr

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